Richard E. Grant's directorial debut is a coming-of-age story based around his own adolescence in Swaziland. He tells Leigh Singer about family trauma, Hollywood snubs and the English abroad.
Typically a filmmaker introducing their new movie to an audience underplays things - modesty, wry self-deprecation, a certain sangfroid tends to fit the bill. At the world premiere of Wah-Wah however, Richard E. Grant junks this protocol entirely. Looking like he’s about to kiss every single person in the auditorium, arms windmilling extravagantly, near manic euphoria spilling out in every direction, it’s like witnessing the benevolent version of his most indelible character, Withnail. Then again, this is more personal than simply Grant’s first time as a writer-director – his own turbulent youth is about to unspool onscreen.
“I think it was a combination of nerves and excitement,” Grant, 49 yet still remarkably ruddy and boyish, says the following day of his wired state the night before. “From start to delivery has been a five-and-a-half year process. That we finally got it made and with the calibre of actors we have – Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Miranda Richardson…it’s a real dream come true.”
A coming-of-age story set at the twilight of the British Empire in Africa 1969, Wah-Wah (the title refers to twee colonial speak – “toodle-pip”, etc) recounts Grant’s own formative years growing up in Swaziland: how his mother abandoned his father, the Minister for Education, for another man and how his father’s alcoholism and sudden remarriage to a feisty American ex-air hostess shattered young Richard’s innocence. This family dissolution parallels the decline of British rule, its hermetically sealed universe revealed with both affection and disdain for its stiff upper lip front, the hothouse atmosphere behind closed doors and all the “wah-wah”.
“It’s a way of protecting your tribe and identity in foreign circumstances, I suppose,” he reflects of the “snooty babytalk.” “You see it when English people go abroad - at home they might never talk to each other but then they suddenly get very baked bean-y and Marmite-y and nostalgic. It’s a source of real comedy to me.”
While Grant has great fun with the ex-pat pomp and pageantry – a climactic stage production of Camelot for visiting Princess Margaret effectively posits the entire Empire as one big am-dram production – the heart of the film is the family dynamics between young ‘Ralph’ (played by About A Boy’s Nicholas Hoult), his self-destructive father (Gabriel Byrne), errant mother (Miranda Richardson) and stepmother (Emily Watson).
Grant has a reputation for candour that verges on professional suicide. His hugely successful mid-90s memoir With Nails was a frank, hilarious dissection of a jobbing actor’s immersion in Hollywood, from the sublime – a “hat-trick” with his three favourite directors Altman (The Player), Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Scorsese (The Age of Innocence) – to the ridiculousness of Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk. But surely dishing the dirt on Hollywood royalty is vastly different from exposing your own family tragedy?
“It’s a risk,” Grant concurs. “I wrote everything straight out without thinking at all about who it would or wouldn’t offend in my own family or people that I knew. Because I never set out to write something that was an act of revenge, then I think that if you understand why the mother leaves, why the father becomes a violent alcoholic, if you understand why people do things, you can’t sit in moral high judgment of them. So that’s my only get-out clause.”
Grant describes writing the script as “a real exorcism”, which presumably means that five years of stop-start development to get the film made can be classed as ongoing shock therapy. Every faltering step is documented in another breathless journal The Wah-Wah Diaries, from begging the King of Swaziland for permission to shoot in his country to the nightmares of casting, being turned down by everyone from Hugh Grant to Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore to Meg Ryan.
“All these actresses between the ages of 40 and 50 who’d said they were desperate for leading, well-written parts that weren’t in crash-bang-wallop movies,” he rues, “and every single one of them, either via their agents or through personal letters came back with ‘this is just not the thing for me’ or whatever.”
Still, not only did Grant end up with a fine cast and permission to make the first feature film shot in Swaziland, he ended up loving the directing process, with two of his past directors influencing him the most. “Bruce Robinson’s respect for and insistence on the dialogue being done as written on Withnail and I is something I greatly appreciated,” he notes. “He would say I haven’t spent all this time for some actor to turn up on the day and say something else because it just popped into their head.
“And [Robert] Altman’s democratic way of working, everybody gets paid the same and you’re essentially working on a low-budget premise. You’re stripped down of all the paraphernalia, top billing, jacuzzis and sushi on tap and all that bollocks that goes on, so that you’re there for the integrity of the project – that really has made an indelible impression on me.”
Inevitably what the film also gave him was the chance to reconnect even more deeply with his roots – not that he ever severed them. I’d describe myself as a Swazi-Englishman, I suppose,” he reflects. “I go back once a year and still have friends there. My father’s buried there, so it’s kind of a pilgrimage for me to go back. I think people found it hard to adjust from having known me as that bloke who became an actor and went to England to now back running a unit of 120 people and giving orders! I loved that.”
So much so that more writing and directing is the aim, despite Wah-Wah’s tortuous gestation and his own financial hardships while making it. “I could have been bankrupt by now,” Grant admits, before cheerfully admitting that TV ads for a certain high-street store kept him going, and blow what people might make of that. “My interest is in how shit happens, if you like,” he affirms. “Be as honest as you can about everything. Because…why not?”
Wah-Wah opens on June 2nd